HISTORY OF DENIM THROUGH THE AGES | WESTERN WEAR GOES HOLLYWOOD

I was in 5th or 6th grade, 10 years old, when I started making my own money. I’d go with my Mom on the weekends to the restaurant where she was working at the time out at little ol’ Litchfield Airport in Arizona. The place was called Barnstorm Charlies. I’d bus tables there, re-stock, clean-up, help out in the kitchen– whatever they needed. It made me feel independent, and like I had something to offer the world. I worked hard and didn’t complain– I was proud to have a job, and wanted to be the best employee I could be.

With my hard-earned little fistful of cash, the first thing I remember buying was a pair of Levi’s 501s. I still recall heading to the local Smitty’s, going through the stacks of shrink-to-fits looking for my size, doing the shrinkage calculations printed on the Levi’s tag in my head, holding that dark, rigid denim in my hands– and feeling a wonderful inner glow that’s hard to explain. It was the birth of an intense Levi’s ritual that is still a part of my life.

The preamble is meant only to let you know that denim, Levi’s in particular, probably means more to me than it does to most people.  It may sound strange, but denim represents all that I consider to be good and of value in the world. It’s  pure, honest, unpretentious, reliable, hard-working, American tradition that gets better with age. It doesn’t get any better than that in my book. The story of denim is forever entwined with the story of America. It’s part of our heritage, and a genuine American Icon.

Jack Benny, Dick Powell, Ken Murray, Bing Crosby on drums, Shirley Ross.

Jack Benny, Dick Powell, Ken Murray, Bing Crosby (in head-to-toe denim) on drums, Shirley Ross. Tommy Dorsey is just out of sight on the right on the trombone. Amateur swing contest, ca. 1939.

Singer Bing Crosby, sometimes dismissed as simply a crooner, was in fact, according to jazz historian Gary Giddins, “the most influential and successful popular performer in the first half of the twentieth century.” He was an artistic maestro who made everything he did look effortless, one of the founding fathers of modern pop culture, and also led the technology forefront in broadcasting and recording innovations. Bing Crosby gave us the most popular recording of all time– “White Christmas” had an astounding 396 hit records between 1927 and 1962 (Frank Sinatra had 209, Elvis 149, the Beatles), and holds the all-time record for #1 hits, with 38 in all, far outdistancing the Beatles’ 24 and Elvis’s 18.

“The thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby,” according to jazz legend Artie Shaw, “is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States.”

Above, Bing can be seen banging the skins in Levi’s from head to toe– in his 506 jacket and 501 jeans. The 506 jacket was produced as seen from 1936 to 1942– during WWII restrictions the pocket lost its button-through flap to save resources for the war effort, and in 1953 the 507 model was introduced featuring double button-through pockets and side-tabs, rather than the buckle-back cinch.

bing crosby denim jeans levi's tuxedo

Bing Crosby’s love of Levi’s has been well documented throughout his life. A great story that is evidence to this dates back to 1951.  The story goes that Bing was on a hunting trip with a buddy, and they entered their hotel in Vancouver, Canada to check-in. Not being familiar with Bing’s status as a major celebrity, the clerk simply took their appearance into account– the men were clad in denim and hunting gear, which was unacceptable attire for entry into any respectable hotel in those days. Remember, denim was utilitarian wear for dude ranches, farmers, croppers, and chores back then. It was not a mainstream fashion statement like it is today. Bing Crosby told the hotel’s front desk clerk– “I’m sorry I didn’t bring my blue serge suit. I haven’t worn it since high school and it probably wouldn’t fit anyway.” Well, they did end up getting a room, once Bing Crosby was finally recognized by an observant staffer.

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Bing Crosby ranch

Cowboy at heart and Levi’s-lover Bing Crosby opening the mail bag at his ranch in Elko, Nevada.

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Bing Crosby’s famous denim tuxedo made for him by Levi Strauss & Co. back in 1951.  via

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Bing Crosby sporting his famous denim tuxedo made for him by Levi Strauss & Co.– read that label!

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Word of the embarrassing hotel incident made its way back to the fine folks at Levi Strauss & Co., whose designers promptly made Bing Crosby a custom denim tuxedo to prevent the problem from ever happening again.  The formal jacket was made from 501 denim stock and featured an incredible handmade red bouquet on the lapel made entirely of Levi’s red tabs, and held together with their standard copper rivets– very cool.  Inside the jacket, a stern warning to hoteliers could be found– a large patch with that read “NOTICE: TO HOTEL MEN EVERYWHERE– THIS LABEL ENTITLES THE WEARER TO BE DULY RECEIVED AND REGISTERED WITH CORDIAL HOSPITALITY AT ANY TIME AND UNDER ANY CONDITIONS.  Presented to BING CROSBY.  Elko Blue-Serge Day, Silver State Stampede, June 30, 1952.  Signed– American Hotel Association by D.J. O’Brien, PRES.”

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Bing Crosby being present with his Levi’s denim tuxedo for Elko’s “Blue Serge Day” on June 30, 1951.

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Back in Elko, Silver State Stampede members saw a way to get some great publicity for their big rodeo, and for Elko. After all, Crosby had been Honorary Mayor of Elko since 1948. Besides, he was a local rancher up at North Fork when he wasn’t busy back in Hollywood.  Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco was asked by the Stampede committee to make two Levi tuxedos– one for Bing Crosby, the other for Elko Mayor Dave Dotta. Plans called for Elko to celebrate “Blue Serge Day” on June 30, 1951 during the Silver State Stampede. When Crosby shrugged into his tuxedo, buttoned it, he declared– “Hell’s fire, ain’t that a wizard!” Both garments are on exhibit at the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko. via

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John Wayne in 1939's "Stagecoach", wearing iconic Levi's 501 Waist Overalls, as they were still called at the time, which feature both belt loops and suspender buttons.

John Wayne in 1939’s “Stagecoach”, wearing iconic Levi’s 501 Waist Overalls, as they were still called at the time, which feature both belt loops and suspender buttons.

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The 1910s – 1930s saw the Wild West American lifestyle move largely from a way of life, to ever-increasing faded memories and mythology.  Our country was getting smaller. Technology and transportation were ushering in a new era of industrialized cities and advanced accessibility. The real jean-wearin’ cowboy lifestyle of days past was now kept alive largely through the Western fashions worn by the stars of silver screen and music– and we all know that cowboys & jeans are like carrots & peas. Levi Strauss turned it’s advertising efforts towards the rising cowboy phenomenon that had taken hold of the country — and they found that more national brand recognition also meant more competition fiercely trying to defend their stake, or simply ride on Levi’s coat-tails.

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Actor Roy Rogers & his dog "Phantom talking to his agent during break in filming on the Republic Pictures movie lot.  Hollywood, ca. 1939.

Star Roy Rogers & his dog “Phantom” talking to his agent during break in filming on the Republic Pictures movie lot. Hollywood, ca. 1939.

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Many folks outside of California had never seen or even heard of Levi’s jeans, and going national brought on stiff competition from the likes of Lee (who was bigger out East and in the Midwest), with their 101 Cowboy Pants, which eventually evolved into Lee Riders, and their iconic 101J jean jacket. The 101J is without a doubt Lee’s best effort to date — and just like the Levi’s 501 jean that Lee themselves unapologetically copied, it spawned many imitators over the years. I guess my Levi’s bias is showing through.  But I have to admit, I do love the Lee slim 101J and old blanket-lined, corduroy collared Storm Rider Jackets. They got something really right. First introduced in 1932, the 101J (see Paul Newman below, and Steve McQueen at bottom of post for a pic) signaled that Lee was no longer content with just knocking-off Levi Strauss, and was ready to throw their hat into the design ring. The 101J’s fit was much slimmer, shorter, (and sexier) than Levi’s pleated standby, the 506 jacket. Levi would later introduce the snugger-fitting 557 trucker jacket, but that wouldn’t be ’til some 30 years later.

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Paul Newman Hud

Melvyn Douglas and Paul Newman in “HUD”. Newman is wearing the iconic Lee denim Storm Rider jacket — blanket-lined, with a corduroy collar. Douglas is wearing a classic chore coat. This image appears to be reversed– you can tell by the fact that the jacket plackets should be left-over-right.

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Montgomery Clift in Lee selvedge denim, here with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, his costars in "The Misfits"

Montgomery Clift in Lee Riders selvedge jeans, here with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, his costars in The Misfits.

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1952, Marilyn Monroe lifting barbells (weight training) — Photo by Philippe Halsman

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Like I said, the first Lee 101 jeans from the 1920s were a blatant knock-off of Levi Strauss– “borrowing” Levi’s fit, double arcuate back pocket signature stitching (Wrangler copied the arc design as well, for that matter), and similar copper rivets. Lee eventually found their own voice as their cowboy pants distinguished themselves with details like a deeper yoke, and what they called a special “U-Shaped Saddle Crotch” — for your riding pleasure. In 1925 Lee introduced a zip version, the 1010, later renamed the 101Z. Another big difference between Lee and Levi Strauss is that Lee uses a left-hand twill denim for most of their jeans, whereas Levi’s and the majority of denim brands out there use right-hand twills. A Left-hand twill is widely considered to have a softer hand-feel to it after washing than a right hand twill.

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 James Dean and Dennis Hopper in the 1955 iconic film, "Rebel Without a Cause" directed by Nicholas Ray.  This was the original teen angst film, and I must have watched it at least a hundred times growing up.  Dean was a Lee jean wearer, and though I identified with Jimmy Dean more than anyone else growing up (we share the same birthday), I'm a Levi's guy and don't see that changin' anytime soon.

James Dean and Dennis Hopper in the iconic 1955 film, “Rebel Without a Cause” directed by Nicholas Ray. This was the original teen angst film, and I must have seen it at least a hundred times and counting. Dean was a Lee jean wearer, and though I identified with Jimmy more than anyone else growing up (we share the same birthday), I’m a Levi’s guy, and don’t see that changin’ anytime soon. I know it ain’t a Western, but what the heck… it’s in the context of my growin’ up with denim.

People like me, who grew up before the days of designer denim — when the Big Three denim brands were Levi’s, Lee, & Wrangler — would generally form a loyalty to one label and stick with it.  It identified you with a certain peer group — You already know what camp I’m in. My experience was that Lee never had a real strong identity or following, and fell somewhere in the middle of the road.  Wrangler fans were typically cowboy types with those cool faded rings on their back pocket from that trusty can of Skoal or Copenhagen chew wearing through. I always loved those rings.

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Steve McQueen (in the iconic Lee 101J jacket) Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier at meeting of their own movie production company,  First Artists Production Company, 1972.

Steve McQueen (in the iconic Lee 101J jacket) Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Sidney Poitier at meeting of their own movie production company, First Artists Production Company, 1972.

If you’re like me and have a real passion for denim, then pick-up a copy of Denim — From Cowboys to Catwalks — it’s a great historical primer that I’ve enjoyed for years.

21 thoughts on “HISTORY OF DENIM THROUGH THE AGES | WESTERN WEAR GOES HOLLYWOOD

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  5. my mom once bought me a pair of lees… i cried until she took em back and exchanged em for levi’s … in our lil town only farm boys wore wranglers… i remember grandma commenting that they just were not “ladylike” ….
    xoxo

    • Lee jeans with their rounded bottom rear patch pockets accentuated a nice female derrier much better than the squared off Levi jean back patch pocket; go Lee. When a young college girl also rolled up her ” purloined ” male Lee jeans ” pants leg to expose the ” selvedge “; she was vcry sexy ! ( circa 1970-74 A.D.;college aged girls 18-22 years old).

  6. I never have owned a pair of Lee jeans. I don’t believe I had wranglers either as a kid. I do remember Sears toughskins though, they were reinforced inside the knee and would eat your kneecaps clean off.

    JP

  7. Great denim retrospective. I’m a Levi’s man, too. Finding vintage boot cuts with a 36″ or 38″ inseam can be quite difficult, but there are enough vintage spots in Los Angeles that the occasional pair turns up. I also have a fetish for Levi’s Movin’ On line. Those funky back pockets always quicken my pulse. Although I dig Levi’s western shirts, Wrangler’s long-tail cut is a better fit for me.

    • I just found a pair of classic Levi Movin’ On Jeans with the orange tab…….I was trying to research them and landed on this site… I wear 34″-36″ and they fit pretty well…. I was going to try to sell them on eBay but just might keep them! What do you think?

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  10. Back when I was a teenager and first became aware of what I was wearing, my choice for jeans was Lee Riders. They fit better, being more or less straight from waistband through the hips. The Levi’s that every store carried- no idea what number they were- were “pinched in” at the waist, meaning if you bought a pair that fit your waist, they were too big around the hips. They fit girls a lot better than guys.
    501’s were totally unknown to me as a teenager. It wasn’t til Levi’s made them a big part of their advertising that I learned of the heritage of that style. Even then, the button fly seemed dorky to me. However, once I tried a pair, they quickly became the only jeans I would wear. I still have several pairs of abandoned Lee and Levi’s bootcuts in boxes somewhere.
    Then came the imports. I unknowingly bought some Mexican made 501’s, noting that I had to get one inch bigger in the waist than ususal. After I’d worn them I noticed the watch pocket was wider and the back pockets were lower, causing you to sit on your wallet, unlike Lees and all previous 501’s.
    So now it’s come full circle. Although virtually all blue jeans are now imported, Lee Riders seem to fit the same as they did when they were a proud American company, while Levi’s, though much higher-priced, seem to be much lower quality. In any case, once again, Lee Riders are my first choice for the wearing of the jeans.

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  12. I grew up with lederhose and jeans. My favourite jeans are Lee Rider 101 and
    Wrangler 13MWZ. I would never give them away.

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  14. I remember the term, “waist-overalls” from the 50’s…and once in a while..I will wear my Grandfather’s Railroad (LeviStrauss) Jacket he was issued from Atlantic Railroad (South Carolina).
    Wish I could combine the high-waist from Wrangler Pro-Rodeo with the seat/crotch from Lee.
    Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed a less-heavier Lee Jean in recent years? Working with 30+ horses…I have to have 14oz. or better…
    R. Rogers
    Tulsa, Oklahoma

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